SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Goals change mood, perspective and trajectory, and winning cures nearly all ills.
A little less than 40 minutes after he made the mistake that, at least in his eyes, could have cost his country a major title, Jordan Morris inked his name into U.S. soccer history and scored the goal that sealed the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup title. He became only the fourth American man to notch a goal that clinched a trophy. And eight months after a dramatic, costly coaching change left the program in a World Cup qualifying crisis and drifting in a state of significant uncertainty, the mood around the U.S. national team seems better than it’s been for years.
Yet still, coach Bruce Arena said here late Wednesday night after his team’s 2–1 win over Jamaica in the Gold Cup final that, “I think we’re still behind the 8-ball.”
If that’s the case—the USA is 2–2–2 and in third place in the Hexagonal with four qualifiers remaining—then it’s just about the lightest, least imposing 8-ball there is. Undoubtedly, work remains to be done. But the collective that takes the field at Red Bull Arena for the Sept. 1 qualifier against Costa Rica almost certainly will be miles from the listless, uncertain squad that was demolished by Los Ticos last November. Since Jurgen Klinsmann’s subsequent dismissal and Arena’s appointment, the USA is 9–0–5. Its 2–0–2 qualifying mark includes a 6–0 dismantling of Honduras and a draw in Mexico at the Estadio Azteca. And now, the USA is continental champion for the first time in four years. Success breeds confidence, trust, and chemistry.
None of that guarantees future results of course. But the smiles on the faces of Arena and the men who passed through the Levi’s Stadium mixed zone with gold medals around their necks suggested this is a team that, despite the qualifying work still remaining, is quite happy with where it is.
“If you had asked me in November if this was where we’d be with the program, I’d probably say 'I don’t think so,'” Arena said. “For me, personally, it certainly feels good and for the players that are working really hard to represent the United States and get our national team program better, it’s a real credit to them, simply an outstanding job from the first day I’ve taken this position. Our older players are unbelievable—the passion they have for this program …. this is encouraging stuff.”
Arena cited Tim Howard, who appears on the road to starting in a third World Cup; captain Michael Bradley, who won the Gold Cup’s golden ball award despite joining the team after the group stage; and striker Clint Dempsey, who's willingness to accept a role as a game-changing substitute sent a signal that this a squad with it priorities in place.
“Those guys ... really set the tone, and we have to have the tone set the right way if we’re going to get through these next four World Cup qualifiers,” Arena said. “We have to be successful in September and October and we have a group of guys who are motivated to do that.”
There’s a significant chunk of the national team, led by the likes of Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron and Bobby Wood, who missed out on this Gold Cup while preparing for their upcoming club seasons in Europe. Arena said integrating those athletes after nearly a month without them will be a challenge. But he’s shown an impressive dexterity in managing and massaging a roster, along with a keen understanding of on-field chemistry. Those Europe-based players will join a group that’s established a welcoming, professional, and motivated culture.
“Any team has a bit of stagnation toward the end of an era, and that was us, probably, in November,” said Howard, who won his first CONCACAF title since ‘07. “Bruce has come in. We have a renewed sense of urgency. He lit a fire under us as a group and certain players, and the results have come our way.”
Morris is among those players who still hasn’t earned national team tenure. He’s 22 and in his second year as a pro. There have been ups and downs, from an MLS Cup title last December to a brutally slow start to his sophomore season in Seattle. This Gold Cup marked his last best chance to show he had a role to play in the upcoming qualifiers, and he took it like a seasoned striker, scoring twice against Martinique in the group stage and then delivering the emphatic 88th-minute winner on Wednesday. the goal meant even more considering that it was Morris' faulty marking that allowed Je-Vaughn Watson to get free for Jamaica’s equalizer.
It’s a great championship game narrative, the mistake and then the recovery. “Redemption is a beautiful thing,” said Howard. But Morris, who took ownership of his mistake on Watson's goal, said his rise from the ashes was as much about that collective culture as his own focus.
“I’ve never really had anything like that in my career, where I was kind of at fault for the other team scoring like that. So, it was tough to get over, especially in such a big game,” Morris said. “But my teammates were great and for me. [They] picked me right back up after the mistake and said, ‘Next play. Keep moving on. Try and make a difference.’ And that’s what I tried to do and I was happy I could do that.”
Said Arena, “This tournament has been a really good experience for me and the players to get to know each other and move our program forward …. We’ve made progress, but we have a long way to go.”
It’s a good sign for all that his players agree on both counts.
“I still think we can improve,” said Jozy Altidore, who scored the Americans’ opening goal on a stunning 45th-minute free kick. “We still have to raise our level. We’re happy with the trophy, but I still think there are points where we can dominate games better …. We’re going to enjoy this moment, but there’s still a lot of room to improve.”